Cameron's EU reform drive sidelined at tense summit
AFP, , Thursday 25 Jun 2015

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived at an EU summit in Brussels Thursday to find his referendum reform push sidelined by twin crises over Greece and migration.

Rather than a lengthy conversation about the reforms Britain wants, sources expect European leaders to discuss the issue only briefly on Thursday night before agreeing to move to the next stage in the process -- technical talks.

Cameron's plans to recast Britain's relationship with the European Union before a referendum on leaving the bloc by the end of 2017 have hogged headlines at home since he won last month's general election.

But for other European countries battling to keep Greece in the eurozone and grappling with an influx of migrants from Middle East and African trouble spots, substantive talks on the issue as a group will have to wait.

Britain has stayed out of the eurozone and is opting out of a controversial programme to relocate migrants around the EU.

Many European countries are wary of Cameron's proposals for reform -- French economy minister Emmanuel Macron warned against creating an "EU a la carte" in a BBC interview Wednesday.

Queen Elizabeth II used a state visit to Germany, during which Cameron also held talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, to warn that "division in Europe is dangerous".

Cameron said that Thursday and Friday's summit, the first time the bloc will discuss his reform push collectively, would "kick off a process to work through the substance and to find solutions".

A senior EU diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity did not believe there was "an enormous appetite to have a big, comprehensive discussion of the British question".

That is "undoubtedly coming in the second half of the year," the source added.

Another senior EU official expected British reforms to take up one line in the summit communique.

"They will decide what is the timeframe and how this process should be organised in the four months to come," the official said.

Cameron's official spokesman said what mattered was "the substance and that technical work gets under way before the summer".

Senior EU civil servant Jonathan Faull, a Briton, has already been appointed to lead a taskforce on the British referendum in Brussels.

The summit comes on the back of several weeks of whirlwind diplomacy by Cameron to make his case for change to fellow EU leaders.

Downing Street expects he will have spoken to all 27, mostly in person, by the time the summit starts.

There is even a call scheduled with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose own country faces speculation over its fate in the EU because of its debt crisis.

As discussions enter the next stage behind closed doors, Cameron -- who wants to stay in the EU if he gets the right changes -- faces increasing pressure in his centre-right Conservative party to be more specific about what he is pushing for.

Highlighting wider concerns, three senior eurosceptic lawmakers published a pamphlet last week explaining why they would campaign to leave unless Cameron secures "fundamental change" to restore Westminster's primacy over Brussels.

Officials point to four broad areas of negotiation -- improving competitiveness; ensuring fairness for non-eurozone countries; protecting sovereignty, including opting out of the EU's commitment to "ever closer union" and limiting access to benefits for migrants.

Cameron's Europe Minister, David Lidington, has already warned against revealing specific details of the talks for fear of prejudicing the negotiations.

Instead, the public announcements will likely be kept generalised as the next stage of the reform process -- involving detailed technocratic and legal discussions which could take months -- unfolds.

While the referendum must take place by the end of 2017, ministers are keen to hold it sooner if possible and some senior Conservatives now believe it will take place in the second half of next year.

Whenever it is, Cameron faces a difficult balancing act to keep the negotiations and his own party, with its long history of euroscepticism, on track through to the referendum.